Excellence-propelled competitive success is a funny thing in a double-edged sword kind of way. Once that success is achieved, there's temptation to figure out what inspired it and cling to it as your game's natural tactical evolution renders those methods obsolete. You know they work; after all they've worked before. The problem, as years pass, is that you're essentially playing a different game than the one that proved those methods so functional.
Daniel Negreanu got his start in poker in Toronto's 1980s pool halls and came to his success on the strength of his instincts. He's not exactly a poker player of the David Sklansky mode, playing by feel. His strongest weapons are an analytical mind combined with an uncanny ability to read opponents; we've all seen him call out his opponents' holdings before they're revealed, regardless of whether he's making the right play against the named hand.
In that Negreanu has built a presumably multimillion-dollar bankroll and has parlayed his personable charm, talent and gift of gab into a career transcending the cards he plays, he's recently done a remarkable thing: With an almost unparalleled tournament record, a mixed game of which he says "There's no eight-game lineup in the world that I feel like an underdog in," and the busy schedule that comes with celebrity, he's going back to the drawing board in Texas Hold 'em.
Negreanu's sterling reputation as a player took a hit with the launch of this season's "High Stakes Poker" episodes. With his confidence in that venue shot due in large part to psychological hurdles set by a bad run of cards over recent seasons, Negreanu played substandard poker and paid dearly for it. The experience of not only getting outplayed by the likes of the "big three" (Phil Ivey, Tom Dwan and Patrik Antonius), but also overthinking even simple plays, got the world buzzing. Inexperienced low-stakes players were so bold as to suggest that Negreanu couldn't beat a $100 buy-in cash game on PokerStars. It was a massive assault.
In a March 31 blog entry published on FullContactPoker entitled "A New Challenge Awaits," Negreanu wrote the following:
As most of you know, high stakes no limit hold 'em action has been relatively quiet now for quite some time. Well, with me playing regularly, the games are obviously full with a waiting list. I mean if you have a computer, then you probably have a TV, and if you play poker, and have a TV, you've probably watched a few episodes of High Stakes Poker. If you've watched a few episodes of High Stakes Poker, and you have money on PokerStars, then you jump on the waiting list. If you don't have money on PokerStars, then you deposit some money on PokerStars, and jump on the waiting list. It's that simple really.
Then if you watch me play online in those games, you see all the fundamental mistakes, you see all the misplayed hands and all the weird lines, and then you feel great about your decision to jump in these games as your dreams have been answered. The donkey from that GSN show has fallen into your lap and is prepared to pad your bankroll. I don't blame you.
Negreanu could have sat on his laurels, appreciating his millions, focusing on his brand. Instead, he made the decision to relearn the fundamentals starting at the top. He jumped into the $100/$200 blind cash games on PokerStars, the highest the site offers, and swam with the sharks. In the past month, he's played some 8,000 hands despite keeping his play to one or two tables. (He's not exactly an online pro just yet.) Some called it lunacy.
"I had this discussion with people," said Negreanu from his hotel room while attending the NAPT's Mohegan Sun event. "They were like 'Why don't you do this at $5/$10, $10/$20 or $25/$50' and I was like 'The thing is this. It's not like I'm learning to play poker for the very first time. You know? There's adjustments that have to be made. It's not like I'm starting from scratch. If I was starting from scratch, I'd start at the bottom. I wanted to learn how the best players on the Internet play. Not to disrespect the $5/$10 guys because some of them are obviously really good, but there are mistakes being made at $5/$10 that just aren't made at $100/$200. The players who are willing to play $100/$200 are thinking on the highest levels and learning curve is a lot faster that way. If you look at a guy like Eli Elezra, Eli got really good really fast because he was playing with the best players in the world. It's not something I would recommend as the best strategy financially, but if you want to get better quickly, playing against Phil Ivey and all those other guys regularly would be the best way to do it in my opinion."
In other words, Negreanu understands that he's fighting a losing short-term battle for long-term dividends. The regulars at the 'Stars $100/$200 are among the best players on the Internet, all brilliant poker minds with vastly more extensive experience in this particular game than Negreanu. "It's a tough lineup for anyone and there's a lot of variance for small win rates in that game," said Brian Townsend, who's played a few hundred hands with Negreanu in the last month. "It's not a good game. Daniel has the least experience of anyone in that game and there's usually a strong correlation between hands logged and success. Everyone there is a smart guy and they've all grinded twice as many hands. They've been grinding that game for the last two years and Daniel hasn't been doing that. He's capable of overcoming it, but it's a hurdle."
The one player who has provided Negreanu the most counsel is Lex Veldhuis, a fellow HSP alum who comes from the 24-table school of online play. "We talked about why he wanted to do it and what his objectives were," recalled Veldhuis, a fellow member of Team PokerStars Pro. "It's really hard for someone who's been so successful to shake their fundamentals, but I told him to forget everything he knew and start over. The way people perceive him and the general strategy was outdated or fundamentally wrong, so I told him make a fresh start and do everything right.
"I think he's adjusting great. What I'm really impressed by is how he researches players. For me personally, one of my leaks is I don't go into my opponents' strategies enough. He's kind of OCD about it. It's really impressive. I think he's improving rapidly."
Through this process, Negreanu has started recognizing the fundamental flaws in his game and has begun the task of fixing them. "The truth is, playing tournament poker the last 10 years or however long it's been, my game has always been well-suited to play against players with flaws in their games, so my fundamental flaws didn't really matter," recognized Negreanu. "I could overcome them with my reading ability, my people reading skills and the fact that the system I'd developed was absolutely perfect for the flaws those players had. Those flaws didn't translate well to cash games.
"Mostly, the flaws are fundamental flaws before the flop. I'm playing hands in bad positions, betting my hands actually, I feel like on the turn and river I don't have many adjustments to make, because I play those streets pretty well. It was mostly pre-flop math stuff that I wasn't aware of based on stack size. Like, certain hands I would play just weren't playable in certain spots based on the numbers. Also, I was never afraid to play hands out of position in the past because most people sucked. Now, playing hands like K4-suited out of position against good players just isn't going to be profitable. It's the kind of thing I used to do."
The key word there is "used." Negreanu's foray started with a hot run that had him feeling confident, but variance was in play and reality brought him back down to even. Over the month, he's running at just about even, down $983 at last report. That's a great price, however, for the improvement he's been seeing as a result of the time logged.
Established online pros like Mike "Schneids" Schneider and Phil Galfond have made public statements about Negreanu's instincts and steep learning curve, with Galfond noting on the "twoplustwo" forums: "It's very cool when someone who doesn't need to make money playing cash games still wants to." It's a nice summary of the respect Negreanu's pursuit has garnered among the professional community.
"One thing Daniel has going for him is that he's very realistic," said Justin Bonomo, who's been observing the experiment closely. "He doesn't take his tournament success to mean he can play cash with the best online grinders. He knows where he stands and knows he has to work on his game to take it to the level where he's one of the best. Despite what some people may think, he's very smart, very analytical and studies the game at a world-class level. When he started off, he was def really, really bad. He was playing too many hands and played with the idea he had to bluff every hand to make money. Since then, he's tightened up and stopped doing that. He's improving really quickly. He's certainly not losing very much in the long run if he keeps playing as well as he has been. I do think it's possible that he'll become a winning player in that lineup in the future."
With the emergence of Negreanu as an online presence, the once-dormant high-stakes hold 'em games have become active again. Negreanu's perceived weakness caused players to move up in stakes and line up for hours in the hopes of getting their shots at the star. This has led to suggestions that Negreanu's choices were fueled by PokerStars' desire to close the gap with FullTiltPoker in the cash game wars. Negreanu laughs off the idea.
"I've gotten zero pressure to play big games, and zero money to do so. I'm not being staked. This was just literally me figuring I needed more hours online. Once I started, I realized it was really good for the site."
It looks as though PokerStars' windfall won't be ending anytime soon. With the understanding that a player can get a truly accurate read on how well he's faring in a particular game only with some 50,000 hands logged, Negreanu has pledged to reach that number by the end of 2010. He's hoping to get to 20,000 hands by the launch of the World Series of Poker, then continue after that series' completion. That means a lot more action on those cash game tables and a lot more attention for the site. No wonder those accusations flew.
Of course, that also means a lot more poker for Negreanu, who's more enthused to be playing than he has been in a long time, even using his rare days off to get hands in. Fifty-thousand hands is a lot of experience and a lot of education, albeit at a potentially expensive price. Of course, with his track record of success, the guess here is he won't pay too much for it in the long run.
Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com.